Spreading the Word
A Christian Youth Fellowship accentuates differences in beliefs in three small Adirondack towns
Story and photos by Adam Patterson
There wasn’t always an evangelical Bible Institute and surrounding properties in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, situated in the towns of Chester, Schroon Lake, and Pottersville.
It wasn’t until a Long Island native, John Van Casper “Jack” Wyrtzen, was introduced to Brooklyn-born Harry Bollback, that he first started to accept the teaching of Jesus. With Bollback,The Word Of Life Fellowship, the youth ministry fellowship, was formed.
"I got a feeling they don’t like anybody except themselves.”
Wyrtzen was not always an evangelical Christian; his decision to dedicate his life to his religion came much later. Jack had a friend who he met playing in the 101st Calvary band in his youth. Jack’s friend was susceptible to drinking and general mischief until he gave his life to his religion, and he was determined to spread the word. Wyrtzen resisted, but eventually relented, also dedicating his life to his religion.
J. Ronald Blue, adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, knew Wyrtzen well before his passing in 1996, and remembers him fondly.
“I have spent untold hours with Jack Wyrtzen, a man I deeply admired and dearly loved. He was a man of great vision and zeal, with a passion to reach people with his life-changing message of the Bible. He proclaimed this message in massive rallies and in private conversations with everyone he met,” Blue said.
Currently, the Word Of Life Fellowship is a world-wide ministry, spawning missions in more than 30 countries, as well as maintaining the ranch, camp, and Bible Institute in several adjacent towns.
Some members of the towns, however, have memories much less endearing than those of Blue. And while some people have formed strong opinions of the Word of Life Fellowship in their town, others remain suspicious.
“I was just surprised to see so much real estate taken up by the Word of Life Fellowship. I didn’t really know anything about the organization, but it just seems odd to me,” says Mimi Michalski of New Jersey. Michalski had stayed in the area in hopes of looking for potential houses to buy. Her tenure in town included the Fourth of July celebrations, where the Word Of Life Fellowships presence was strongly felt.
“Probably 80% or more of the parade was associated with Word of Life,” says Blue.
Another resident, John Warren of Pottersville, who is also the founder of The Adirondack Almanack, an online publication dedicated to all-things Adirondack, is much more vocal about his opinions. The Word Of Life Fellowship’s influence on the town, the amount of property, and the behavior of the students also struck him as odd.
“They’re [Word of Life Bible Institute students] generally fearful, and they keep away. They’re not allowed to do a lot of things, and they have a lot of fear of locals. Not all of the students, obviously, but the ones I’ve encountered have been fearful. You’ll hardly ever see students in the community,” Warren says.
The student handbook, readily available for download at the Word of Life's website, outlines some of the policies for students at the Bible Institute.
"Fish tanks may not exceed 10 gallons."
“No movies of any kind (DVD, downloaded, streamed, burned, or otherwise) may be played in the dorm room at any time, nor may they be kept in the dorm.”
“There are to be no televisions in the rooms at any time for any reason.”
“Physical contact between persons of the opposite sex is not permitted on or off campus.”
Generally, two students of the opposite sex must have a third party with them at all times.”
“In both the Old and New Testaments, God has commanded that no intimate sexual activity should take place outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. Accordingly, all forms of homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery, and pornography are sinful perversions of God’s gift of sex (Genesis 2:24;19:5; 13; 26:8-9; Leviticus 13:22; 18:1-30; Romans 1:26-29; I Corinthians 5:1; 6:9; I Thessalonians 4:1-8;Hebrews 13:4).”
For men, “no jeans, tattered or torn, may be worn in a classroom. No flannel shirts, pullover shirts, sweatshirts, athletic or combat style shoes, clashing clothing, or hats,” are allowed in a classroom environment.
“Fish tanks may not exceed 10 gallons.”
Rules found in the handbook aside, Warren outlined where the Word of Life Fellowship sits on the political and religious spectrum.
“This is a serious evangelical church. It’s based on this indoctrination…I got a feeling they don’t like anybody except themselves,” Warren says.
However, as an evangelical institution, the Word of Life Fellowship “believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are verbally inspired of God, and they are without error in the original writings, and they are the supreme and final authority for faith and life,” says the student handbook.
“They knock on people’s doors. Once, a woman knocked on my door and said, ‘My kid has something to say to you.’ She urged him on. He was terrified, like any kid would be. His mother was using him as a tool to spread the word,” Warren says.
Warren also commented on rumors that The Word of Life Fellowship had bought the historic Wellshouse in Pottersville with the purpose of letting the liquor license expire, and then built a church next door to make reacquiring a liquor license more difficult.
John Nelson, Executive Vice President of Finance and Marketing at the Word of Life Fellowship, is aware of the rift that sometimes can be felt among the townsfolk and the Word of Life Fellowship, but “It depends on who you talk to.”
Nelson also commented on the Wellshouse rumors, stating, “There is no relationship [with the Wellshouse]. One of our retired staff members was involved in renovating, but there’s no relationship between the two. He was retired at the time this happened.”
The tension between “believers” and “non-believers” is not isolated to the Adirondacks, as scholars of the Bible also feel a similar phenomenon in academic discourse.
Daniel B. Wallace, of Dallas Theological Seminary, tried to explain the fissure he felt between his more liberal colleagues, a feeling that mirrors the one between the Word of Life fellowship and certain townsfolk of Schroon Lake, Pottersville, and Chester.
“It is possible that they don’t like it because it requires responsibility on their part toward God, and lays out a text as authoritative over their lives,” Wallace says, “There is an innate rebellion on our parts that fights again this sort of thing... At bottom, the evangelical faith is very strong, though it is admittedly a bit differently articulated than I was 100, 50, or even 25 years ago.”
The continuing rift in beliefs between “believers” and “non-believers” can be felt all over the world. Wars have been won and lost because of differences in beliefs, and the canyon between lay people and evangelicals was buried in the Adirondacks. All it took was a youth ministry like The Word of Life Fellowship to dig it up.
Evangelism, as defined by www.thefreedictionary.com, is “the zealous preaching and dissemination of the gospel, as through missionary work.
A sometimes synonymous term with evangelist is “fundamentalist Christian,” though the two can be used in different contexts. Fundamentalist Christians are typically conservative, and rely on certain “fundamental” beliefs in terms of Christianity, like the inerrancy of the Bible.
Of course, not every evangelist is a fundamentalist. Evangelism is not to be confused with Evangelicalism, defined by Wheaton College’s website, as “the religious movements and denominations which sprung forth from a series of revivals that swept the North Atlantic Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”
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